02.13.12

How Florida Polo Mogul’s Girlfriend-Adoption Ploy May Backfire

Facing financial ruin, John Goodman adopted his longtime girlfriend ahead of a DUI-manslaughter case. Now, amid legal tussles with his kids and a judge, that move could backfire on the millionaire, reports Jacqui Goddard.

As he awaits trial in a DUI-manslaughter case that could leave him jailed for up to 30 years and stripped of his fortune, it is possible that Tuesday could be the last Valentine’s Day in a while that Florida millionaire John Goodman gets to celebrate at liberty.

Yet the day could also present him with something of a moral dilemma: should he buy his sweetheart roses and a romantic dinner, or take her for ice cream and a play date at the park?

Since the revelation that the polo mogul has adopted his girlfriend, Heather Hutchins, 42, as his daughter, Goodman, 48, has not been short on public ridicule.

Yet the stealth maneuver—which could make Hutchins a beneficiary of the $400 million trust set up for Goodman’s two biological children, effectively steering a slice of the funds to Goodman just as he faces the loss of his personal assets to legal action—has earned him more trouble than he perhaps bargained for and could ultimately backfire.

As a direct result of the adoption, a judge has ruled that the trusts are no longer off-limits to jurors who will next month consider a wrongful-death civil claim from the family of Scott Wilson, 23, the motorist killed when police say Goodman blew through a stop sign in his $250,000 Bentley GTC after a night of drinking in February 2010.

In a further twist Thursday, a lawyer acting in the interests of Goodman’s biological children, Harriet, 16, and John Jr., 13, went before a court in Miami seeking to undo Hutchins’s adoption, stating that it was “based on fraud upon the court.”

“This adoption is contrary to the public policy of the state of Florida and should not be permitted,” Joseph Rebak, the lawyer for the children’s guardian ad litem, told The Daily Beast. “‘Abhorrent’ is the word for it.”

Goodman’s slippery legal moves may appear to be on a par with the arrogance on display the night of Feb. 12, 2010, when authorities say he got behind the wheel after an evening spent downing tequila shots and vodka and tonics at the White Horse Tavern and the Player’s Club, watering holes within the wealthy equestrian community of Wellington, where he lives.

Police said Goodman smashed into a Hyundai Sonata driven by Wilson, a college graduate heading home to his parents’ house, after hurtling past a stop sign at 63 mph shortly before 1 a.m. Wilson’s car came to rest upside down and underwater, its driver still strapped in his seat. Officials say Goodman fled, leaving Wilson to drown.

By the time Goodman called 911 at 1:54 a.m., having reportedly first rung his girlfriend to say that he had “really f-ed up,” the accident had already been called in by a passing motorist. Goodman was glassy-eyed, slurring his speech, and reeking of alcohol, said Troy Snelgrove, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office traffic homicide investigator who interviewed him shortly after 3:30 a.m. at a hospital where he was being treated for a broken wrist.

Goodman refused to give a statement and smiled for a police photograph in the hospital. Blood taken three and a half hours after he left the club revealed an alcohol level more than twice the legal driving limit, according to the sheriff’s office report. Goodman has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.

The tragedy has scandalized well-to-do Wellington, where Goodman, a pivotal figure in the town’s international polo scene, enjoys a champagne lifestyle and near-celebrity status.

One of four children, he was raised in Houston, where his father ran an air-conditioning empire—slogan “Thank Goodness for Goodman”—that sold after his death for a reported $1.4 billion.

John Goodman was drawn less to the business world than to horses and, in particular, polo, the “sport of kings.” He converted his father’s racing-thoroughbred horse farm into a polo ranch, bought some of the best polo ponies in the world, and founded a team that he named Isla Carroll, after his wife. The team became one of the most respected in the country and gave Goodman elite status in the polo world.

When he founded the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington in 2004, he was dubbed “polo’s angel.” He sunk millions of dollars into creating a world-class venue that has become the sport’s epicenter in the U.S., hosting the nation’s three most respected polo tournaments, drawing the finest players from around the globe, and serving as a social hub for the Gatsbyesque equestrian set. He has rubbed shoulders with royalty, including Queen Elizabeth II, and celebrity A-listers such as Madonna.

When the American leg of the World Dressage Masters was in danger of collapse, Goodman stepped forward with the funding to rescue it.

“He’s been a tremendous force within both the polo and dressage community for saving the day,” said Robert Dover, a U.S. Olympic dressage medalist who lives in Wellington.

“He had a real sad event in his life where he made the wrong decision at the wrong time, but in general, in every single situation where I have had a connection with John, he’s been nothing but a gentleman … he’s extremely generous, extremely kind, really a nice person to be around,” said Dover. “I think most people who know John recognize that this mistake is not the sum total of who he is.”

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office records reveal similar plaudits from Goodman associates interviewed in the days after the crash. They tell that he stuffed handfuls of cash into a charity collection box earlier that evening—and that he regularly paid for guests to be driven home after parties to ensure that they did not drive drunk.

Despite his playboy lifestyle, testified polo professional Kris Kampsen, who played on Goodman’s team, “he’s a very hard conversationalist … he stutters a lot. He’s a very introverted guy.”

He added: “You’re at his house, and the music’s on, and he’s like, ‘Do you like the music? Are you sure? Are you sure it’s OK?’ … kind of nervous, you know.”

Yet Goodman also has a dark side. His now ex-wife accused him in a 2008 divorce filing of a “history of cocaine use” that the document stated had led her to become “fearful for the safety and well-being of her children.”

Cathleen Lewter, a bartender at the Player’s Club, told sheriff’s investigators in February 2010: “I’ve seen him come into the bar late night with powder hanging out of his nose,” and described him in his inebriated state as “a disgusting drunk, sweaty, and slurring his speech and just kind of like a lump of a person.” (A representative for Goodman’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations of cocaine use.)

Stacey Shore, a polo groupie seen kissing Goodman in the bar on the night of the accident, told investigators that he later extended her an invitation—“Let’s go get some cocaine”—that she refused. Minutes after the pair parted at the club, Scott Wilson lay dead in a ditch.

“Why did he have to die, man?” Goodman is said to have later said to his horse manager, Carlos Pravaz, who told deputies: “He’s so sorry … this is not his behavior.”

But if there is contrition, it is not apparent from his calculating legal tactics. Goodman has pleaded not guilty to DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and failure to render aid and hired one of America’s best trial lawyers, Roy Black, noted for securing acquittals in celebrity cases including that of William Kennedy Smith—nephew of John F. Kennedy—on rape charges in 1991.

Goodman apparently did not notify his ex-wife, his biological children, or the guardian ad litem appointed to oversee the children’s financial interests of his adoption strategy. They say they found out only via a court disclosure Dec. 27, more than two months after the adoption was granted.

Palm Beach circuit Judge Glenn Kelly—asked by Wilson’s parents to allow the Goodman trust to be considered fair game by jurors at next month’s civil trial, in the light of the adoption—admitted during the hearing: “This adult adoption in my view basically puts me in the legal twilight zone. I really do not know and probably will not find any cases which have dealt with anything even close to this.”

Adult adoption is not uncommon and is often associated with securing a line of inheritance, but is under law intended to create a parent-child relationship. Past applications that have failed include those of a 57-year-old man who attempted to adopt his 50-year-old female lover—a case that a New York court rejected in 1984 as “patently incongruous”—and of a married man whose attempt to adopt his 20-year-old lover was dubbed “a perversion” by Rhode Island Superior Court in 1980.

Goodman lawyer Daniel Bachi said the adoption was done “with the intention to preserve and grow the assets of the trust for his two minor children, even should he personally be unable to continue his historical role in achieving these goals”—a nod to the possibility that he could be going to jail.

Separate legal tussles being played out among Goodman, his ex-wife, and representatives for his biological children in probate courts in Delaware and Texas could yet result in Hutchins being excluded from the trusts, despite her adoptive status.

If there is contrition, it is not apparent from his calculating legal tactics. Goodman has pleaded not guilty and hired one of America’s best trial lawyers, Roy Black.

Whatever the ending, said Charlotte Danciu, an adoption lawyer in Delray Beach, Fla., who is not associated with the case, Goodman and his lawyers are guilty of “demeaning, bastardizing, manipulating” the spirit and intention of Florida’s adoption statutes.

“He might be a great guy who made a mistake one night and drove drunk, but all his efforts since that time aren’t the efforts of a kind and generous guy who’s remorseful,” she said.

“You can make a mistake, but when you go to these extreme lengths to not have your money taken away when you have so much, it looks bad on him, it looks bad on the lawyers, and the fact the adoption was granted looks bad on the judge,” she said. “The average Joe is up in arms.”